WA elections officials need rapid data to match misinformation age

America’s elections — and the workers who conduct them — face an ever-changing barrage of threats that will certainly intensify as the nation heads into another presidential Election year.

Most recently, state and county elections administrators began stocking naloxone, an opiate overdose drug, after bad actors mailed fentanyl-laced letters to their offices. Election leaders must have quick, clear-eyed awareness of emerging dangers, when misinformation can spawn real threats and even violence.

To stay in front of such threats, Secretary of State Steve Hobbs’ office in May hired Logically, a British AI company, to see what people are saying on social media, including X, Facebook, Rumble, Truth Social and Substack. It’s smart surveillance in difficult times — some things could be serious, most probably not.

The company’s work includes exposing disinformation efforts that attempted to connect Ukraine to Nazism in the lead-up to Russia’s invasion of the country. Logically also has been retained by Oregon’s secretary of state for the same objective.

But, not so fast, objects the Washington State Republican Party. Leaders say the contract goes beyond monitoring: that it is surveillance to be shared with “outside stakeholders,” including social media companies, which could use the intel to suppress views on platforms. Among Logically’s first Washington Election alerts was a tweet by state Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen. Walsh, the state GOP chairman, posted on X about the King County Election’s office’s unannounced replacement of an Election tabulation server in September.

A simple tweet, raising a valid question about a public function. Logically picked it up in an alert: “This narrative could … degrade confidence in Washington state and King County’s ballot counting procedures among those who believe that Election officials commit Election fraud.”

The party filed a complaint with the state’s Executive Ethics Board but it went nowhere. Kate Reynolds, its executive director, said it lacked “enough information to allege a violation,” and did not open an investigation.

The 2024 Election could present the greatest challenge yet for elections officials, especially if former President Donald Trump, who denies his 2020 defeat, is a contender.

In a world where deepfake videos and AI will make deciphering the truth even harder for voters, the Logically contract is a helpful tool to give elections officials real-time awareness so they can rapidly respond to the rumor mill and pinpoint threats of violence.

That said, the secretary of state’s office must wield this information with care. Logically’s work shouldn’t be used to undermine germane discussions of Election policy and procedures that elections officials do not like. On the accusation it will share intelligence with social media, a secretary of state spokesman said it has not reported any of Logically’s work to such companies. The office may consider doing so in the future for what it deems threatening or malicious content.

Think threats of fentanyl-laced letters, not Walsh’s fair questioning of Election equipment maintenance.

Washington’s work to counter mis- and disinformation must be as transparent as possible. The revelation by the state Republican Party that the secretary of state used a no-bid process to award the $273,000 contract to Logically is not a good start toward that goal.

A secretary of state’s office spokesman says a bid competition would’ve delayed timely monitoring potentially by a half a year. The office also sent the administration of the contract through South Puget Sound Community College, a route it defended as routine but that added a 15% fee paid to the college.

Logically’s assessments to the secretary of state come with a section of “impacts,” as the result of misinformation, to include the aforementioned “degrading of confidence,” in elections. Wider perception of a sole source contract, administered by a community college for monitoring social media, could generate such an impression, too.

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